This little book is actually a very serious insight into early-twentieth century social history, interesting for anyone researching either the history of Liverpool or more generally, the social conditions prevailing in the period from the outbreak of World War One to the end of the 1940s.
The sharpness in some of the characterisation was acute, and I felt as if I really had met some of the folk that crop up - Mary Ann McGuinness, the one-toothed greengrocer-cum-coal-merchant with her witch-like cackle; or "big, bouncy, rosy-cheeked Cissy"; or Orazio, the ice-cream vendor who never spoke because he was always dreaming of Italy.
The bleakness of the physical environment is movingly described too: I shuddered at the demise of little Danny Woods, where the horror of the poor child's fate escaping from an Industrial School is beautifully put into the context of the topography:
"How the child must have sobbed, crossing the dark mysterious fields, behind him the grim barracks, ahead of him not a shred of hope or comfort...The deserted streets and blank silent houses offered little joy..."
This is the language of a man who really had lived through the bleakness, who knew how to evoke that feeling in his writing, and it has a very poetic sense, as a well as a dark and terrifying atmosphere to it.
Disease and child mortality pervade the book, from the autor's own experience of the death of his infant siblings ("always a tiny coffin under the window") to the demise of his girlfriend Georgina, and then the paper-boy Tommy, a fourteen-year old whose "chest was paining... Within a week he was dead." When we think of the carnage of the First World War, we very often overlook the lottery of survival among the poor and the cheapness of human life which was already endemic in the mindset of the British governing class, irrespective of the War, at that time.
It's easy to fall into a sort of nostalgic slush when writing a personal retrospective of one's childhood, but Callaghan avoids that. He is nostalgic about some things, of course, and this reaches its crescendo when he's describing his time working on the railways. But there's a current of bitterness that surfaces from time to time as well, and which serves as a perfect counterbalance.
It's unfortunate that the standard of proof-reading and typography appears to have declined somewhat in the latter sections of this little book, a distraction which needs to be addressed by the publisher for any second edition. Otherwise, this is both a charming and a disturbing insight into life between the wars, and a must-read for exiled Liverpudlians such as this reviewer.